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Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Everything about the Holy Thorn

Of all the things I expected from a sojourn in the Umbrian countryside (olive trees, wild boars, pasta, Roman noses, Etruscan vases, vin de table), the very last was the semiannual appearance of the Holy Thorn in Montone.

As we all know, a couple of weeks ago, Notre Dame in Paris was burning. Watchers around the world were horrified. But a mere twenty-four hours later, things were not looking so bleak. The Crown of Thorns and the beehives on the roof were unhurt by the fire. We received several emails from bee-loving friends with the news of the still-flying bees. But I had to learn of the Crown of Thorn’s escape on my own.

Then we were visiting friends at their exquisitely restored tobacco-drying barn, Bacciana. Montone is a walled town in Umbria, with some lovely restaurants, no decent postcards, and the ex-church of San Francesco featuring frescoes in terrible condition. But of the frescoes that are still extant, there are a cephalophore* and a very young and nubile Saint Sebastian.
While roaming around town reading menus, we learned that on every Easter Monday Montone celebrates the Gift of the Holy Thorn (Donazione della Santa Spina) with a day of pageantry, costumes, archery, puppetry, and handsome men in bicolored tights. Religiosity and shapely calves. What could be better?

In the 15th century, the Venetians, grateful for his help in defeating the Turkish invaders, gave Montone’s local squire, Braccio Fortebraccio** a single thorn from the crown of thorns: the Santa Spina. The Venetians had acquired the Crown a couple of centuries earlier, as collateral for a loan made to the warmongering Baldwin II of Constantinople. Baldwin never redeemed the Crown, but Louis IX of France did. Apparently the Venetians held back a few thorns.

If you care to research the history of the Crown of Thorns, and the various extracted thorns, you must be prepared for conjecture, legend, wishful thinking, and contradictions. Also just plain heresy.
Eagerly, I texted my sister that we would be seeing the Holy Thorn in Montone, and wasn’t this a fantastic coincidence, or just plain serendipity, that we would be in Montone for this celebration? She texted back that according to her research (Wiki) there was no Holy Thorn in Montone. I sent her a picture of the reliquary that was featured in the flyers all around town. She sent me a link to the Wiki page enumerating all the cities in Europe claiming one or more thorns. Montone was not among them. Cities in Belgium, France, the Czech Republic, Spain, Germany, Britain, Ukraine and five cities in Italy all lay claim to a portion, or a branch, or a thorn, or a fragment, of the Crown of Thorns. Even a chapel in Pittsburgh, USA, claims a thorn. But not Montone.

This is obviously yet another example of the fact that you can’t believe something just because you read it on the internet. I was in Montone and I saw the Holy Thorn. Well, I didn’t actually see the Holy Thorn because it was inside its special box. It wasn’t even in the beautiful reliquary shown on all the flyers, because at last year’s celebration, there was a touchy moment when the Montonian carrying the reliquary almost fell off his horse. But I did see the special box that was used in lieu of the reliquary. And I know what I saw.

*Cephalo-phore: a saint who has been decapitated and then carries around his/her head. If you don’t know this already, you haven’t been paying attention.
**His Wiki page also does not mention Montone’s Holy Thorn: a dereliction that makes me suspect a possible conspiracy by the other Thorn-Hoarding cities.


Monday, February 18, 2019

SUNDAY ROUTINE (with apologies to the New York Times)*

How Christine L, blogger, beekeeper, egg collector, terrible typist, and ranter, spends her Sundays

THE NEW YORK TIMES. “I am a very hardworking person,” Christine told us. “So on Sundays I like to wake up at 8, a full hour earlier than 9, which is when I wake up on Saturdays. Then I roll over and reread the book I was reading last night when I fell asleep with my nose between pages 84 and 85. (Or whatever. Feel free to insert your lucky numbers here.) Lately it’s been Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins, a book that warrants multiple re-readings because it is so weird and prescient. CSB, meanwhile, has milked the chickens, burned yesterday’s manuscripts, and taken my mother to church. I know it is time to get out of bed when he comes back from the early service and tells me what comments my mother made during the sermon. Examples are: “There many of them have beards [points to the ceiling] and they all have toes,” and “Phew. Now I can find what I lost.” Attendance at the early service ranges from three to seven; CSB reports to me exactly who was present, and how many times my mother counted. In French. My mother, not CSB.”
BREAKFAST LIKE A QUEEN “Then it’s time to caffeinate.” Christine is a tea drinker. We asked her why. “Because I am not a coffee drinker, and those two are the only options.” Unsurprisingly, Christine takes nutrition seriously. “If there is any dessert left over in the frig I will definitely eat that for my first breakfast course. Fruit tarts are best, but in a pinch I will have chocolate mousse or baked Alaska. Second breakfast is always two poached eggs over Gallo Pinto with a dollop of yogurt. Some things never change, nor should they.” In addition to her other attributes, Christine is thoughtful and discreet. “Because yours is a so-called Family Newspaper, I will skip over the next hour of my Sunday Routine. Let your imaginations run wild.”
WHAT TO WEAR WHETHER YOU ARE SEEING THE POPE OR NOT… “Since all week long I dress for success with bespoke corduroys pants, flannel shirts, vintage cashmere sweaters with almost no moth holes, and socks featuring bees or chickens, on Sundays I like to turn off my inner fashion-meter. Just this past Sunday I garbed myself in silk pajamas dotted with congealed egg yolk, and a djellaba from Cairo my grandfather wore in 1951. To keep warm I draped myself with a fur stole, but don’t worry, whatever it was has been dead longer than you have been alive. I always wear a hat on Sundays. Sometimes choosing the right one can take a very long time.” We saw a small complement of the hats in question, and can sympathize with challenge to choose just one.
KEEPING FITTER “Friends tell me that exercise is very popular these days, so on Sundays I often exercise. Unless I participated in exercise during the previous week, in which case I will rest. My favorite exercise is ping-pong. I used to be the Costa Rican junior ping pong champion so it tends to be difficult to find players who are willing to compete against me, because I will beat the pants off them and then gloat. Just thinking about the difficulty of finding a suitable opponent tires me out.”
MORE FOOD “On Sundays CSB and I like to throw caution to the winds and radically alter our lunch menu. Just last week I had almond butter instead of peanut butter. That was fun, but one shouldn’t indulge too often.”
KULCHUR “I can’t help noticing that most of the subjects of this feature feel compelled to tell you about their Sunday’s cultural activities. I don’t know where to start. I like art projects that also reduce clutter. My latest masterpiece involves burning old postcards and gluing them onto my grandmother’s watercolors. Since I have thousands of old postcards (still) and hundreds of my grandmother’s paintings (numbers may be inexact), this is a very useful and cultural thing to do.”
AND MORE FOOD “My fondest childhood memories are of Sunday dinners at my grandfather’s house. Under the dining room table my grandfather had a button, cleverly concealed beneath the Persian carpet, which he would depress with his foot to summon the cook. A favorite activity for those of us who were not required to discuss fluctuations in the cotton market was to slide under the table and press the button. Frequently. Relentlessly. Very soon after her untimely death, my grandfather’s cook, Mrs. Herlihy, was nominated for sainthood, on account of her saintly refusal to kill us. Her beatification sped through the Vatican red tape. Countless friends and colleagues of my grandfather eagerly wrote to the Holy See to testify on behalf of Mrs. Herlihy’s sanctity, as well as to confess their dismay that she never once dismembered even one of us. That tells you everything you need to know about our Sunday Dinner Routine.”
AND FINALLY “Come Sunday evening I need to mentally prepare myself for the week ahead. This often involves scuba diving. Bedtime cannot come soon enough.”




*If you are not a regular reader of the Times’ “Sunday Routine” feature, you will probably not find this funny. You will most likely find it puerile and pointless.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

A Recycling Rant

If you are going to recycle and want to feel good –or just unshitty - about recycling and the possibility of mitigating the imminent environmental collapse of the planet – then do not, as in do not EVER, actually deliver your recycling to your local recycling center or DPW.
Because if you do at least two things will happen.
1. You will despair of the planet.
2. You will think very unpleasant thoughts about your fellow citizens.
The irony being that these fellow citizens, about whom you will think deprecating thoughts, are the very ones who are availing themselves of the recycling bins. But they are doing it so very very badly.

There are two ways to recycle in our town. The first, and for many simplest, is to leave your recycling out on the curb on the appointed pick up days. One blue bin for paper, and another blue bin (in fact the bin may be any color you like, even mauve) for recyclable plastic and glass and metal. Note the adjective RECYLABLE. Recyclable means NO Styrofoam, no broken lights bulbs, no light bulbs at all, no plastic bags (These can be recycled at specific bins outside the local Foodtown), no electronics, no heavy metals, no paint cans.
The second way to recycle in our town to load up your recycling into your car and personally bring it down to the DPW, where they have 4 dumpsters for paper, and 3 smaller dumpsters for plastics.
That seems fairly simple, does it not?

You could point out that all our local efforts to recycle are but a pea shooter directed at the ginormous monster that is Climate Change wrought by human activities and the increase in greenhouse gases, a ginormous monster that will likely devour our planet before our valiant local recycling efforts make any difference at all to the End of Life as We Know It.

I will not point that out because, well because most days a tiny peashooter is all I have at hand. Plus, recycling makes me feel marginally better about being a citizen of such a ponderously wasteful and selfish country.

Which brings me to this specific rant. Here at Let it Bee farm, we bring our recycling to the DPW once every week or two. Also my mother’s recycling, a concept she no longer comprehends. CSB, who feels very strongly about these matters, does not like leaving our recycling at the curb because papers often blow away and get strewn across the road and become dreaded litter. That is why we load up the back of his pickup with our blue bins and go to the DPW, where we put all our paper and cardboard into the large Paper Dumpsters, and we put our plastic and glass and cans into the Mixed Metals Dumpsters. (I have to admit that keeping to this plan becomes especially challenging when we are dealing with plastic water bottles that were pissed into and then thrown out of some tiny-bladdered slob’s car onto the verge along Broadway, where I periodically collect litter. For more about this, see SQD: Rant about Littering.)
The signage makes it quite clear which is which. The signage also states very clearly that NO plastic bags are to be thrown in with the plastic and glass etc.

Here lies the problem. By personally delivering our recycling to the dumpsters at the DPW, I have the opportunity to see what my fellow citizens – obviously well-intentioned citizens who want to recycle and Save the Planet – put into the dumpsters.
Just this week, in the dumpsters designated for paper and cardboard, I saw: aluminum takeout containers, paint cans, heavy plastic detergent containers, a stainless-steel water dispenser, and a fluffy white bathrobe.
It was the bathrobe that put me over the edge. You can blame the bathrobe for this rant. I received a quite similar fluffy white bathrobe as a Christmas gift, and while I did not actually need a bathrobe (fluffy or otherwise,) I have grown fond of it. On account of it being so fluffy. Bathrobes, fluffy or not, never belong in the Paper and Cardboard Dumpster.




I have not even addressed the very compelling question of those plastic windows in envelopes from organizations seeking to part you from your money, or annoy you in other ways.
Nor have I once mentioned what happens to recycling machinery when the wrong materials are fed into the maw.
Also unmentioned is the serious likelihood that because of the co-mingling of contaminated materials, the whole lot will be rejected by the recyclers and added to an already enormous landfill.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Dante and Unanswered questions



Sometimes a small and apparently unimportant question, such as, Why did my mother acquire so many postcards of William Blake’s Lucia carrying Dante in His Sleep? will trigger a slew of other questions. There is a domino effect to questions, as with so much else.
Postcard stashes are one thing. I can forgive myself for not knowing the reason for them. I can even speculate. The watercolor, one of Blake’s illustrations for the Divine Comedy, is owned by the Fogg Museum at Harvard. I guess that this particular surfeit has something to do with the HILR (Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement) class on Dante’s Paradiso that my father took in 2010. After his strokes, my father forgot discreet decades of his life (Please explain how Cuba came to be Communist, he once said), but his judgment and critical powers were remarkably intact. So, he kept on taking classes at HILR, and, as always, was a diligent and engaging student. That did not stop him from calling on the evening before his class and asking me to read Dante’s Paradiso and come up with 10 or 12 pithy observations and insightful questions. I got off easily. When Dad was studying the Economics of Global Climate Change, he called my sister and asked her to read the assigned text, 836 pages of small print, and give him a detailed synopsis.
Now what do I do with these 20 postcards? Would you like one?
That was just the beginning. In the latest pile we found multiple postcards from Ireland. We had no idea she had even been to Ireland. She had 37 – thirty-seven! – postcards of a detail of the Tara Brooch, from the National Museum of Ireland. Not even the whole brooch, just a detail.

As for the Tara Brooch, it raises more than a few questions, and not just about my mother's stash. Although it is called the Tara Brooch, the piece was found near Bettystown in County Meath, at least 25 kilometers from Tara. It was discovered by either a peasant woman, or her two sons, or one of her sons. The brooch didn’t even start the fashion in Celtic Revival jewelry. That was already in full swing in 1850 when the brooch appeared. And apropos of nothing, my mother was never interested in things Celtic; her tastes ran to the French, the Egyptian, the Ethiopian, and the Vietnamese.

No, that felucca has sailed. I will never ever know why the Dante cards, why the Tara Brooch, why the eight postcards of Mrs Elizabeth Freake and Baby Mary, by an unknown American of the 17th century. So many unknowns.
How can I not be annoyed with the idiotic former self who neglected to ask: What are the full names of the seven suitors who wooed and wanted to wed you, my mother, before you met my father? Why, when you kept so many other things, did you destroy the letters from Mr. Jago? Why did you stop going to Mass for many years, and then start up again? Who was your favorite child? Was there ever a time when you knew more than a few dozen words in Arabic? Did my father ever work for the CIA?
Don’t be too harsh, I tell myself. At least five years before we had the tiniest inkling, my mother was already afflicted with Alzheimer’s. She was just covering it up fairly well. As was my father, on her behalf and his own. They were in denial. Not for nothing was my mother who grew up in Egypt known as Queen of Da Nile. Her mantra was, “If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all.” Mine might well have been, “Spit it out. Think later.”
Those fucking questions.
There are so many things I will never know, now that a typical conversation with my mother conversation proceeds thus:
Mom: There’s that nice little thing there in the back….(She is lying on her bed with the duvet pulled up to her chin, and facing the Christmas tree on her screened porch.)
Christine: Do you mean the tree?
M: Yes, the tree.
C: It’s very nice.
M: Everybody thought it was mortar.
C: Mortar or water?
M: Mortar.
C: Oh.
M: Well they wanted to be mean and everybody always…I couldn’t believe it, it was so bad.
C: I’m sorry.
M: Sigh.
C: Everything is fine now.
M: But I have some things. I have some red papers which are white and they’re going to go in here (she lifts the duvet slightly and leans slightly inward) and they’re going to go in here and they …….
C: OK! Mom! Everything is lovely.

One of the more disheartening things I have noticed, whenever I set out to transcribe a conversation with my mother, is how limited my own vocabulary becomes. I use more words, and more complex words, with a three-year-old. My mother can still speak three languages, and can make no sense in any of them. It is like trying to cook a meal with three ingredients, and one is water and one is half a carrot.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Most recent favorite sentences


Sometimes life is too much with us, and politics are too late and too soon, and your fingers are too cold to type. But sometimes reading a wonderful sentence can cheer you up for a whole day. Sentences are a gift, and for these two I am grateful to Gideon Lewis-Kraus.

They can be found in a Times Magazine article about archeologists finding bones on a island of Vanuatu, and how their discovery and interpretation caused a ruckus in the anthropological world. That was all interesting, but the best parts, for me, were these two sentences:

“A meaningful national identity [of Vanuatu] has been constructed from a common appreciation of ceremonial pig-tusk bracelets and the taking of kava, a very mild narcotic root that looks like primordial pea soup and tastes like a fine astringent dirt.”

“Kava is a cloudy green tonic, served in little miso bowls meant to resemble coconut shells. The custom is to collect your shell, retire to the corner of a nearby shadow, take the entirety at one draft and then spit the particulate remnants; by nightfall, when even the city is blanketed in thick dark, the only regular sounds are the screech of the fruit bats and the hock of spit.”


Pictures from Wikipedia.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

The In-law Trifecta

I didn’t know what a trifecta was until I met CSB, and he took me to the harness racing at the Windsor Fair in Maine. While we enjoyed fried dough and fried ice cream and fried cotton candy, he explained about exactas and trifectas, and how we could place bets on a horse to win, place, or show. It was all entirely new and wonderful, especially as it involved broadening my vocabulary. I chose horses based on how appealing I found their names. What else could I base it upon? Given the option, I would bet on Abstract Expression instead of Foiled Again, and I would lose. Or I would wager my $2 on Slippery Toad, and he would come in last, or maybe not at all.

So naturally, I knew what CSB was referring to when he pointed out that this past weekend he had survived a trifecta of my siblings: one sister; one sister-in-law, married to #1 brother; one brother (#3) and wife, and their daughter and fiancé. Not to mention a nephew, son of only sister.
He loves them all, but you have to admit, that’s a lot.

If we add in last night, it would be a tetrafecta, a word which thus far does not exist. But it is easy on the tongue, and certainly has more cachet than bifecta, which sounds like a very unfortunate sexual event, and also does not exist.

In gratitude for CSB’s gracious in-law trifecta, I have promised that this weekend I will do something Super Bowl-ish with him. I assume it will involve fried food, and placing my bet on the Surrealists of Cincinnattus.

Monday, December 31, 2018

The Moths and the Murmuration

‘Tis (or ‘twas) the season to deplore the overuse of ‘tis, and summarize the highlights of the past year. In one of these two all-important tasks, I have fallen short.
So, having failed to produce a pithy Christmas card regaling friends and family with our adventures and misadventures of 2018, I thought I could at least bake something.

Not that most of you lucky souls will taste what I baked. It is the concept of baking that I imagined as an antidote to the lack of Christmas letter.

There I was in the kitchen, our lovely kitchen with its three big windows facing west, overlooking the field, the river, and the geologically thoughtful and imposing Palisades. In a certain cabinet I found two bars of fancy chocolate. How long had they been there? Had they been invaded and nibbled by pantry moths? Do pantry moths even like chocolate? They had not. But the question was valid, because on the way to discovering the chocolate, I came across a package of almonds that had been very much invaded and inhabited by moths. It was quite revolting, all the masticated almond crumbs globbed together with the spider-webby stuff the pantry moths leave behind. I took the whole thing outside and gave it the chickens, who love grubs and bugs and squirming larvae.
I started wondering about pantry moths. Evolutionarily, biologically, what exactly is their purpose?
I have no answer to that question.

Initially when I started researching pantry moths, I assumed my moths were the Mediterranean variety, whose ancestors, like mine, were immigrants to North America. (Also known as invasive species.)

That was wrong. My pantry moths, and most pantry moths, are Indianmeal moths. Indianmeal moths are not from India. They should not be confused with almond moths or raison moths, even when they munch on almonds and raisins with gusto. They also don’t mind eating cardboard or plastic if that is the best route to grains or nuts.
One of the things I was most delighted to learn about these moths, my moths and your moths, was that the females “oviposit on the second night after emergence. This is because they require a few hours for the sperm to move from the bursa copulatrix to the vestibulum, where fertilization occurs”.
How often do you get to use the word oviposit? Not enough, in my opinion. The same goes for copulatrix.
[Yes, I know we are dispensing with such gender specific, that is to say, feminized, words such as actress, waitress and aviatrix, but I hope we can keep copulatrix. Just because. ]
And when they do oviposit, the female moths oviposit between 116 and 678 eggs, in a food source, such as my almonds or whole wheat flour. Between exactly 116 and 678 eggs. I checked three sources, both online and in a real book, and they all gave those exact same numbers for the minimum and maximum number of eggs.

Why so much about pantry moths?
Because it seems especially important, at this time of year (birthday of Jesus, shutdown of the US government, wildfires, floods, holidays that conspire to break your heart, long nights, and then, arbitrarily, a new year with a new number) to recognize the depredations of age, usage, indifference, betrayal, neglect, breakage. Hungry moths.

There I was, checking out the moth carnage in the baking supply cabinet, when the light in the kitchen changed. Nothing alarming, just a shadow passing.
It was not a shadow at all. (Not my pictures.)
Outside, right in front of me standing at the window, thousands of starlings flew together from the branches of the birch tree up and over the field. They swooped together, they rose together, they dipped and swooped upward again. This, I later learned, is called “scale-free correlation”. Together they filled the sky, not completely, not as a dark blob, but as a giant pixelated moving wave. Together they curled and landed on the field, and together they alit and returned to the sky. I don’t know how long this Murmuration of Starlings lasted. They swirled and pulsated; their shape ballooned and then narrowed as if a belt were cinching a waist. They grew large and small. I didn’t have my camera, and any way, I couldn’t have captured this sky-filling avian ballet. Watch this on You Tube for an idea. For as long as they flew, ascended, curled back and dropped to the field, lifted in perfect synchronicity from the field and flew in wider circles, I watched. I felt hopeful.
Finally, they swooped northward and then flew in a wide parabola and headed southwest towards the river. I waited, in case they would circle back. But that was it, they went elsewhere.

Who are these starlings, and why do they do what they do?
For starters, starlings, like my ancestors and most of yours, were immigrants to these shores. Though my grandfather, a German cotton broker, did not arrive here with a Shakespearean agenda. Starlings did.
On a snowy day in 1860, Eugene Schieffelin, a German immigrant, released 60 European starlings in Central Park. It was his wish to introduce into North America all the birds mentioned by the plays of Shakespeare. (Clearly, the concept of invasive species was not yet au courant.) Ironically, Schieffelin succeeded with starlings, who get one puny mention in all of Shakespeare, whereas the more frequently mentioned skylarks and nightingales never adapted to North America.
When Schieffelin died in 1906, his obituary in the New York Times listed his memberships in the NY Genealogical and Biological Society, the NY Zoological Society, the American Acclimatization Society, the Union Club, the Society of Colonial Wars, the St Nicholas Club and the St Nicholas Society (Seriously. Both.) There was no mention of the starlings.

These days starlings are considered a nuisance, pests, and hazards. And of course, an invasive species.
According to the Coordinator for the USDA Airports Wildlife Hazards Program, starlings are “lean and mean. In the industry they're often called feathered bullets.”

Along with the enlargement of my vocabulary with oviposit and copulatrix, I was delighted to discover that our government supports an Airports Wildlife Hazards Program.
And so with this, I end the year, and wish you all a Happy, Healthy and Sane 2019.